The second half (Episode 7) of the merge episode of Survivor 41 succeeded far better than the first half (Episode 6), almost entirely due to the efforts of its players. The ex-Yase trio of Xander, Tiffany, and Evvie outplayed a potentially game-breaking advantage with style, which partly erased the stain of a ridiculous twist that flipped the results of the previous episode.
As we'll get into below, there was the core of a good idea buried in all of this: Having half the merge tribe immune really helped elevate the gameplay, giving people like Xander license to take a really big swing and give away an idol, something he almost certainly would not have done if he were not already immune.
But there was also a lot of luck involved. The show got lucky that Liana was so antsy to play her Knowledge Is Power advantage *right away*, at the very first Tribal she attended after receiving it. Had she waited even one more round (as would have been advisable for someone trying to play both sides), the big idol/advantage shell game doesn't happen, Liana ends up with Xander or Naseer's idol, and the big majority alliance just picks people off, which would have been pretty boring.
With a cast full of likable players with heartwarming stories, who then is the villain? Well, apparently, it's the people who keep showing up in stray shots this season: the show's production team (also the host).
They're the ones foisting these unasked-for, game-breaking advantages onto the show. As the audience, we cheer heartily when the ragtag Yases put their heads together and play around the overpowered KIP advantage, even though Liana generally seems pretty likable herself. Similarly, we're happy for Erika that she gets to be immune after being sent to Exile and missing out on all the merge meet-and-greet activities, even if it means that rootable folks like Evvie and Danny and Deshawn are now in danger. Erika's not the baddie, it's the jerks who thought up the dumb twist and put it into the game in the first place!
With that in mind, let's take a look at one of the key themes the season's true villains have been indulging in this season: Illusions. (, Michael.)
The illusion of choice
A lot of the advantages this season have been presented as a dilemma in which each of the 2-3 participants has free will to make a decision between two options. In reality, though, most of these have been "choices" that were intentionally rigged by production for a specific outcome. Not to favor a particular player, but to force a particular advantage into the game.
For example, the last two times people visited Dilemma Island after a challenge (Evvie/Deshawn; Shan/Liana), the choice of visitors was not random. Each time, the IC winners had to first pick someone from the losing tribe. The second visitor was open to anyone on the other two tribes, but who doesn't want an advantage? So someone from the winning tribe attended.
Both of these visits worked out exactly the same: The person from the losing tribe (Evvie, Shan) felt that with Tribal looming, and no way to plot with their tribe, they couldn't give up their vote. So they voluntarily "gave" an advantage to the other visitor (an extra vote for Deshawn, the Knowledge is Power advantage for Liana). This was unsurprising, because it was the logical thing to do, and Evvie and Shan are both smart people, keenly aware that it's a good idea to make a private deal with someone, in the hopes they can help you later in the game.
Similarly, Erika's "choice" to smash the hourglass wasn't even a choice, as fans pointed out immediately when Probst presented the options to her last week. If she opted *not* to smash the hourglass, she would have to compete in the individual IC the next day, and if she lost, she would have a few hours to catch up on the two days of merge tribe plotting she'd missed. That would be suicidal, game-wise. But if she *did* break the hourglass, she doesn't have to compete in the IC, earns the goodwill of the team that didn't send her to Exile, gets to slap back at the team that did, AND she receives immunity, a free pass at the first post-merge Tribal. Such a Sophie's choice dilemma!
So while production didn't hand-pick the individual recipients of these three advantages that came into play this week, they absolutely stacked the system so those advantages were all but guaranteed to be active. While trying to pass off this whole process as "choice."
The one dilemma that actually was a choice this season was the one where Brad, Sydney, and Tiffany made a nighttime trip to Dilemma Island, and in that one, the actual negotiating was edited out, in favor of pretending that each person randomly decided their choice. (According to both Brad's and Sydney's exit interviews, Tiffany and Sydney mutually agreed that Brad should have the advantage, because they didn't need it.) So the one actual choice: made to look random. ~*~* Illusions! *~*~
(The "Beware Advantage" packaging on their invitations was also hilariously not a real choice. Nobody is ever caught leaving camp at night, nobody would have cared that much if they were, and there was a huge penalty for not trying.)
In general, this opaque misrepresentation of what's actually going on with respect to idols and advantages is becoming standard operating procedure for US Survivor. We had the suspect hidden rules governing trips to Island of the Idols. The unspoken restrictions on who can receive gifts from EoE in Winners at War. It's a very "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" kind of vibe, and it's really starting to become bothersome.
This advantage distribution system does offer a slight improvement over the old one, where advantages would just suddenly appear near camp, often suspiciously right in front of production favorites. This at least eliminates that sketchiness, so it's a step forward in that regard. But it's hard to shake off the general air of production lying to both the audience and the contestants about what's really going on.
If you want to distribute advantages, there's already a great example of how to do that fairly, and in a way that respects the game: SurvivorSA: Immunity Island. There, everything was spelled out in detail to the visiting contestants before they made their choices. None of this "You have to make a choice right now" followed by "Ha ha! Here's the penalty we didn't you tell you about!" bullshit. It took a couple of episodes for the cast to work out the cost/benefit of sending someone there, but that was also transparent.
Watch and learn, US Survivor. You *can* keep players off-balance while still being fair and encouraging gameplay, not restricting it. You don't need to try to reinvent the wheel, breaking it several times in the process!
(Feel free to skip past Episode 10, though. It's a long season! Conserve your strength!)
The minuses of the half-tribe immunity spree
There were multiple structural twists that defined this two-part merge episode, and we should consider them separately: On its own, the Ep6 IC twist of half the merge tribe being immune was one twist, and it was fine (which we'll get into below). The second half, Erika's reversing the outcome of the challenge with the hourglass/hammer combo, is a separate twist, which was in contrast really, really dumb.
Let's consider the latter first: It was a really unfair twist, and one that sets a really dangerous precedent for the show — that the result of a challenge can later be reversed whenever the producers feel like it, even after Probst announced the opposite. This just makes every hard-fought challenge win seem like it's subject to the whims of the producers. If that mindset sets in, have reaping the fruits of what you have sown when every single player just sits down and throws some future merge team challenge, because fuck it, it's not worth getting scraped up over.
The worst aspect of this twist was that Probst slathered on the propaganda about the winning team "earning" their place in the merge in his pre-Ep6 IC spiel, knowing full well that there was a near-100% chance that those same results would later be reversed by someone who sat out. Again: the people who lost the challenge they were about to run would almost certainly eventually "earn" their place at the merge by losing, and that would be "decided" by someone who didn't even compete.
Danny was 100% right to be upset about being lied to. Probst should apologize to the cast, and should also pledge never to outright lie to players like this again.
(Also to knock down something Sydney repeatedly claimed in her exit interviews: The hourglass twist was not "intended" to punish physical players. While the challenge *was* physical, the teams were decided by rock draw, and there was a puzzle at the end. Had the rock draw produced more evenly matched teams, the physical part is not an issue. Besides, physical players are always targeted right after the merge, duh. The hourglass twist was just a poorly thought-through plan to give a bonus to someone on Exile, and prolong the merge into two episodes. They could have just given her an individual immunity necklace and a buff.)
The pluses of the half-tribe immunity spree
There was part of this twist that actually worked out quite well: giving immunity to half the merge tribe. It's an improvement on the merge twist from Fiji, where a rock draw also split the merge tribe up into two teams in an IC. There, the losing randomly-drawn team went to Tribal, while the winners went back to camp. This is much better because there was a fundamental unfairness about the Fiji scenario where someone who wasn't in any danger at the merge vote (Michelle Yi) was instead, due to how the rock draw went, voted out. Here, half the tribe was still in danger, but the entire merge tribe was there to vote. That seems a lot more fair than Fiji's version.
There's also a very strong possibility that having half of those present at Tribal be immune goosed the gameplay. (Gave them "immunity balls," so to speak.) It seems highly unlikely Xander would go through with all the fake idol bait-and-switch shenanigans if he's not already immune. That's way too risky. In contrast, having exactly one obvious ally/ potential idol recipient in danger in Evvie, also really helped the subterfuge. If the opposing side suspected or had caught wind somehow that Xander had already handed off his idol (as he was saying he would), the most obvious place to suspect it actually was sitting was with Evvie (as we saw Shan say). There was no reason to give it to Tiffany, she wasn't in danger.
To see the real benefit: Look at how this plays out if only one person of the 12 has immunity here. For simplicity, let's even say it's Xander who has the immunity necklace, so that he still goes through with the handoff. Liana still has her KIP advantage, and again asks Xander for his idol. She either gets the idol from him, or if Xander successfully fakes her out, no biggie, because the majority now knows that it's with either Tiffany or Evvie. They then split their votes evenly between those two. Even if one plays an idol, the other still goes home. Simple. Even if the Yases use Xander's extra vote, a supermajority of 9 will still easily overpower four votes and an idol with a 5-4 split. The majority could even make it 5-5 just to be safe, using either Shan or Deshawn's extra vote. Sydney stays Luvu strong and doesn't play her Shot in the Dark, and the Pagonging of the yellow tribe begins.
Had the team that won immunity in Ep6 actually *kept* their immunity, this half-tribe immunity would have felt a lot more fair. Danny was absolutely right in complaining that he was told one thing by Probst, went out and competed and won that thing, then had it taken away. That *shouldn't* sit right with him, because that was the wrong thing for the show to do. But had his team stayed immune, having just five people vulnerable is still an interesting twist on the merge vote.
The problem with recent merge votes is that because merge tribes are so big, and there are so many possibilities, everyone suffers from choice overload, and instead of an exciting vote, they're dull, safe, easy votes: Wendell in WaW (9-3), Elizabeth in DvG (12-1), Noble in GI (10-2). Here, there was enough ammunition and safety nets to thwart that.
So to sum up: The merge twists had the kernel of a good idea — an idea whose cleverness was made clear by an elite group of contestants seizing the opportunity to finally play — it was just buried under a pile of unnecessary crap and hamfisted execution. There actually was a pony in there somewhere, you just had to keep digging.
- Digging into the recycling bin: Not only was the merge twist mostly recycled from Fiji, the individual immunity necklace also looked pretty familiar: It's almost identical to the necklace from South Pacific (even though that season was filmed in Samoa). Same elements, in the same order from center to edge (big tiki, stone, small tiki, arrowhead/shark's tooth), just slightly different colors and numbers of elements. Guess having a year off still wasn't quite long enough for the art department.
- The un-merge - the most asinine of twists: Having half the merge tribe be immune? That's fine. Having the other half not be "on the merge tribe" and not get buffs? That's pretty dumb. Then having that reversed by a twist, and the people who were previously "on the merge tribe" are now off again? That's where you absolutely lose all credibility. We recognize that Sydney did not make the jury, that's incontrovertible. But Sydney absolutely "made the merge." She dropped her Luvu buff. She put on a merge buff. She ate a merge feast. She lived at the merge beach for three days. She competed in the merge individual IC. And she was present at, and got voted out at, the merge Tribal Council. She made the damn merge, even if Probst didn't give her a merge buff again after taking it away. It's really dumb to argue otherwise.
- The tribe that must not be named: They all have buffs now, and presumably have a tribe flag/sign, but the merge tribe still doesn't have a name. Clearly the only acceptable option is the one that combines the initials of the original three tribes (Yase, Ua, Luvu): YUL.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes